While many of us look forward to the colder months, with their promise of roaring fires and hearty food, it’s important to remember that they also bring serious health threats, including flu. Sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding flu, meaning people are often unaware how best to tackle it when they do get sick.
To make things simpler, we’ve compiled a simple guide to the flu, including how to avoid getting sick and how to spot flu symptoms.
What is flu?
Flu – short for influenza – is a name used to refer to a group of common viral infections that are most prevalent during the winter months. Although the it is frequently associated with the common cold, it’s caused by completely separate viruses and – since the flu can be life-threatening – it’s important to be aware of how they differ.
While you may feel as though your symptoms are simply a ‘bad cold’ they could in fact be caused by a flu virus, and – if you are in an at-risk group – you may need medical treatment. Read our doctors’ article on the difference between cold and flu.
Flu risk groups
Those most at-risk are:
- People over 65-years-old
- Those with a weakened immune system
- Pregnant women
- Those with a lung, liver, heart, kidney or neurological disease
Flu can be dangerous, leading to complications such as bacterial chest infections which can in turn develop into pneumonia. It can also worsen existing health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and can cause pregnancy complications. During the winter of 2014/2015, a total of 1,652 people were hospitalised due to complications from the flu – it’s not an illness to be taken lightly.
Symptoms of Flu
The symptoms of a cold are generally coughing, sneezing, a runny nose and a sore throat. These symptoms are also common when you have contracted a flu virus, however it is also associated with:
- fever (high temperature of 38°C or above)
- aches and pains
- sudden onset of symptoms
- feeling too unwell to work or be active
In some cases, the flu can also cause nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea. Read our doctors’ article for more information on flu symptoms.
How can I avoid getting the flu?
The best thing to do is practise good hygiene, by keeping surfaces clean and washing your hands with soap and warm water regularly. This is because flu viruses are spread through contact with droplets expelled from the nose or mouth of an infected person.
The Flu Jab
Another effective way of reducing your chances of getting the flu is by getting a vaccine, or ‘flu jab’. This jab is completely free on the NHS to young children and people who are at risk of complications. For everyone else, the flu vaccine is available privately, through your GP or from high street pharmacies, including LloydsPharmacy. Depending on where you go, the vaccine usually costs £10 to £20.
Before you make a decision about whether or not to get vaccinated it’s important to be aware of a few things:
- The flu vaccine is not 100% effective, as there are many different types of flu virus and the vaccine cannot immunise you against all of them.
- The flu vaccine will not protect you against other infections, including any of the cold viruses.
- The flu jab is different every year as the prevalent viruses change annually. This means that you will not be protected against getting sick if you have received the jab in the past.
- The best time to receive the flu jab is in autumn, ideally by early November, but it can be had any time up until March.
- Usually, the symptoms of flu will clear up on their own after a week, which means that if you are not in a high-risk group you don’t necessarily require vaccination.
If you want to get the flu jab, you should visit your GP or pop into a high street pharmacy that supplies the vaccine. For more information on who can receive the vaccine for free, read this guide from the NHS.
What should I do if I get the flu?
Most people who get the flu will find themselves affected by symptoms and feeling unwell for around a week. The good news is usually there are no serious side effects – although it may require you to take time off from your usual activities, such as work, exercise, and socialising.
If you are generally fit and healthy it is unlikely that you will suffer complications from the flu. You should avoid going to the GP unless your symptoms progress or do not clear up on their own after a week.
Managing your symptoms at home involves resting, keeping warm, and drinking lots of water and other fluids to prevent dehydration. Anti-inflammatories and painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can also be helpful in reducing a fever and soothing aches and pains.
In some cases, anti-viral medicines such as Tamiflu may be used. Anti-virals do not cure the flu virus, but they can help to ease symptoms and shorten the length of your illness. Tamiflu can be ordered online and sent right to your door via our Online Doctor service.
A really key thing to bear in mind is that antibiotics will not have any effect upon the flu, since they are only effective at fighting bacterial infections. Moreover, the overuse of antibiotics has, in recent times, led to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections. In some cases, flu can lead to a bacterial infection of the chest – in which case antibiotics would be appropriate. Otherwise, you should manage your symptoms by staying at home and resting.